2nd. Sunday of Easter (A)
Peace be with you!
That was the ordinary Hebrew greeting, ‘Shalom’; a word to which we have become accustomed through our modern hymns. But in today’s Gospel passage it has no merely conventional meaning: it is repeated twice, and in both cases is the first word in the clause; two details which tell us that the word ‘peace’ is being strongly emphasized.
At the Last Supper Jesus had promised His disciples (John 14:27):
Peace I leave you, My peace I give you; not as the world gives do I give you.
To be able to give peace was generally considered a royal prerogative: that is what kings were for, to win, protect, and confirm peace and prosperity for the people. But, in Jewish society chosen, taught, and formed by God over thousands of years, it was above all the divine prerogative to give peace. Jesus as the promised Messiah --- the ‘Prince of Peace’ foretold by Isaiah --- gives His own special gift of peace as the Messianic King; moreover, He does not give it as would worldly kings, for they give a peace won through victory in war and maintained by coercion and struggle. Here in England, when the Romans invaded so many centuries ago, they waged a bitter war against the native inhabitants, and thereby provoked a British chief to remark, ‘Where they make a desert they call it peace!’
Such was never Jesus’ way. Quite the contrary, He – the Messianic Prince of Peace – won peace for us by sacrificing Himself; and now having risen from the dead, He gives His peace – the fruit of His self-sacrifice – to His disciples, showing them, at the same time, the wounds whereby He had won that peace.
The disciples were filled with joy,
we read, just as Jesus foretold at the Last Supper when He had said:
You are sad now, but I shall see you again, and your hearts will rejoice with a joy that no one can take from you. (John 16:21s.)
For Jewish aspirations in those days, peace and joy were distinguishing features of the final glorious time when God would rule as King, giving harmony to human life and to the whole world. That time was now dawning:
Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you’ and showed them His hands and His side.
Mankind finds peace before God because Jesus – Son of God and Son of Man – died sinless in His human flesh by fidelity to, and love for, God His Father; and then -- by rising from the dead -- He destroyed death along with its ‘sting’, which is sin. In Jesus and by His Spirit all men and women of good-will can now overcome sin for love of God.
Peace be with you!
Notice, however, that this Paschal gift of peace belongs not to individuals as such, but to the whole Christian Community, as a whole. It was first given to the community of disciples gathered together for common prayer in the face of a common threat; it was given, that is, to the Church both militant and witnessing. Jesus does not make His presence manifest as some prophetic prodigy for the amazement of the world, but to the assembled brethren, as divine Head of His mystical Body, His Church, and only here, at this sacred encounter, does He say, ‘Peace be with you.’ And that, incidentally, is why, when we sin and lose our peace with God we have to confess our sins to a priest; because peace is the gift of the Risen Christ to His Church, and in order to regain our individual peace -- if and when lost, broken, through our sin(s) -- we have first to be received back into full communion with the Church and come to share again in her prerogative: peace with God and man, in Jesus the Risen Christ.
Jesus then declared:
As the Father sent Me, so am I sending you.
Once again these words of the Risen Lord Jesus pick up a thread in His discourse at the Last Supper. There Jesus had prayed for His own who were to remain behind in the world, saying:
Consecrate them in the truth. Your word is truth. As You sent Me into the world, so I sent them into the world, and I consecrate Myself for them, so that they also may be consecrated in truth. (John 17:17-19)
That is, before the disciples could definitively go out on mission in the name of Jesus for His Church in the world, they had to be themselves renewed and re-sourced through the truth (John 17:25s.):
Righteous Father, the world does not know You, but I know You; and these know that You have sent Me. I made Your name known to them and will make it known
by the Spirit, the Holy Spirit, Who I will give to sanctify My disciples, forming them in My likeness through obedience and love, and holy as He -- My Spirit -- is holy, so that thus consecrated in Truth I can say to them:
“As the Father sent Me, so I send you.”
And when He had said this, He breathed upon them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”
In the book of Genesis we read (2:7):
The Lord God formed man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being.
The word ‘breathed’ occurs again in the book of Wisdom (15:11):
The One Who fashioned him … breathed into him a living spirit.
From these texts we understand that this moment when Jesus breathes His own Spirit into His disciples, is the moment of a new creation, endowing them with the Spirit of supernatural holiness and life, for themselves and for those they serve in the name of Jesus.
For those whose sins you forgive, they are forgiven;
not just ‘forgotten’ by God, but forgiven, by the restored gift of holiness and life by the Spirit, whereby the sinner is also restored to peace of mind and heart.
For those whose sins you retain however, they are retained;
There is no peace, no gift of the Holy Spirit, apart from the Body of Christ. God does not deal with ‘loners’, He has only One beloved, His only-begotten Son, Whom He sent as Jesus, a Man-among-men, for their appreciation and love, and as Christ for their salvation; One Whom He recognizes as Head of the Body which is His One Church, the gathering together in conscious and willed community of all those who believe in Him as the only-beloved One sent by His heavenly Father for their salvation and their adoption as children of God.
Here we see the essence of the Holy Spirit’s work amongst men on earth: to make manifest, give judgment against, and abolish, sin; because He is the Spirit of holiness, the Spirit of the all-holy and all-loving God and Father of us all.
Of course, it is undeniably true that He is the Spirit Who worked wonders of all kinds in and through chosen individuals throughout Old Testament history; but His greatest wonder is shown here in the gradual obliteration of sin in the world and the ultimate re-making of sinful men and women into a holy, consecrated, family of God.
Yes, in the Old Testament the Spirit won salvation for Israel on many occasions; but here under the new covenant, salvation cannot be brought about through any occasional triumph in battle, but only through the destruction of sin and the forgiveness of sinners.
Yes, in the old dispensation the Spirit foretold future events, but here in the New Testament His greatest pronouncement is the word of God which consecrates in truth.
Jesus Himself, here on earth, once sent out some of His disciples on a mission to go before Him to the towns and villages where He Himself was to visit, and we are told:
He gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out and to heal every disease and every infirmity. (Matthew 10:1)
That sending had been only a trial run, so to speak. Here, in today’s Gospel we have the real sending, the real mission, of the disciples; and here too we have the real ‘gift’, the real ‘power’ bestowed upon them by Jesus to enable them to fulfil their mission: victory over sin in themselves and authority over sin in others by virtue of themselves having been sanctified in the truth.
And yet the Apostle Thomas himself refused to accept and be sanctified by the truth proclaimed by the infant Church! As you are aware, Our Lord, knowing Thomas through and through, had pity of his weakness and his ignorance, and allowed him the sight he wanted; but He gave him a very strong rebuke, the words of which abide for an eternal lesson to mankind:
Have you come to believe because you have seen Me? Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed!
The beloved disciple John who tells us of this was well aware of the privilege he himself had been granted by God which enabled him to enter into the tomb and to believe; but here he tells us about the Apostle Thomas in order to show us where the greatest privilege of all is to be gained: by believing without seeing, believing, that is, on the testimony of the Church.
People of God, if we wish to be part of God’s new creation, if we long for such a purification that we might be able to enter upon a supernatural life of eternal fulfilment in awareness and appreciation of divine beauty and truth, goodness and love, we should pray that we might ourselves be sanctified in truth by the Spirit of truth; that we might know and appreciate through faith God’s message of salvation -- still proclaimed by Jesus in and through His Church -- ever more fully, and love it ever more deeply. The only proof that we have indeed received the Holy Spirit into our hearts and are allowing Him to rule there, is the objective fact that we sincerely seek to overcome our sinfulness by the Christian discipline of letting the one, true, faith determine and form our way of life. As Saint John says:
This is eternal life, the keeping of God’s commandments.
And those commandments are not difficult because God’s Holy Spirit has been given to us. Therefore, let us open wide our hearts to receive anew the Holy Spirit of Easter peace, and then go from this blessed assembly to bear joyful, personal, witness to Jesus by lives of loving, Catholic, obedience.